Our Corner of Paradise: Queer Pasts and Futures in a Greenwich Village Churchyard
By Elisabeth Plumlee-Watson
I fled the sanctuary of the church for the sanctuary of the garden.
All received information should make us inverts sad. But before I finish I intend to celebrate our corner of paradise, the part of the garden the Lord forgot to mention. – Derek Jarman, Modern Nature
On Manhattan’s western shore, Christopher Street tapers into Pier 45 and ends in the Hudson River. For 10,000 years, Lenape peoples followed seal and whale here above miles of oyster beds. In the mere 400 years since Henry Hudson anchored his ship The Half-Moon at the river’s mouth, hunters, whales, seals, and oysters have been all but exterminated.
At the other end of Christopher Street is the Stonewall Inn, one of many gay bars New York police once frequently raided in the wee hours, batons swinging. On June 28, 1969, gay and trans people for whom Stonewall was a hard-won refuge swung back, sparking the Stonewall Riots and a tipping point of the Gay Liberation Movement.
Midway down Christopher Street, halfway between the Inn and the River, is a walled garden, two acres square. In the middle of the garden is the Church of St. Luke in the Fields, the garden being the only fields left to its name.
After coming out to my parents as lesbian at 22, I left the anti-gay Evangelical faith of my childhood and, like generations of queer people before me, moved to New York City in search of acceptance at large and gay community in particular. Even as I sought haven in the City, though, I began craving respite from asphalt and traffic, from five flatmates with whom I shared one bathroom and a galley kitchen; from two million people I rode the subway with daily.
That first long, lonely summer in New York I played flaneuse: wandering every city park for miles: Central, Prospect, Riverside, the High Line, stopping at fountains and attending MeetUp gatherings for “LGBTQ nature lovers.” Even as I learned every path and corner of these American landscape design landmarks, I realized I craved not just “green spaces” but gardens.
I’m not sure why a garden felt—and still feels—more compelling to me than a park. I’m as allured by exclusivity as anyone else, I suppose, and from earliest Western history, the hortus (garden) as frequently as not has been the hortus conclusus, the paradise not just lost, but locked. From the Archangel Uriel at the gates of Eden with his flaming sword to Mary Lennox’s buried key in The Secret Garden, gardens have been actively restricted places for the elect, the privileged, whereas parks as we know them are a relatively modern gift to the public, the city’s Teaming Masses—people without gardens of their own.
Not only was I suffering the intense loneliness of finding myself excluded from the Evangelical Christian culture and family in which I’d grown up considering myself one of God’s Elect; I was suffering the far more common anonymity of being new and largely alone in America’s largest city. Parks felt like places to pass through, whereas gardens granted, if only for an afternoon, a sense of being invited and included (albeit, usually for a fee).
In search of gardens, it wasn’t long before I heard about the Gardens of St. Luke in the Fields—intensively cultivated by a full-time horticulturist but free to the public year-round (though nonetheless a hortus conclusus, surrounded by mellow brick walls and gates locked after dark). My internet search for St. Luke in the Fields revealed photographs of a brick-walled garden in which rose arches looped down spokes of a parterre filled with poppies and tulips. A small clover lawn rolled away from a ruined wall, and through the ruin’s glassless, pointed windows came Virginia creeper and the view of a cherry in bloom. There were also photos of a small brick church with a square belltower at the center of the garden, a rainbow Pride flag hung over the front door.
On the second Sunday in June, chasing that vision of roses over poppies, I took the subway from Central Brooklyn and emerged above ground at Christopher Street, across from the Stonewall Inn. It was the middle of Pride month and the Inn was already smothered in commemorative banners and tourists taking photos. I hesitated there, at Gay Rights Ground Zero, thinking of all the shame I’d chipped away from my life after leaving Christianity, and wondered what was I doing visiting a church—even one with a rose garden, even one that flew a rainbow flag. I hesitated long enough in front of the Inn that by the time I made up my mind, walked down Christopher and up to St. Luke’s churchyard gate, morning service had started. As I approached, I saw through the open doors that the sanctuary was filled with smoke.
I hadn’t known that Sunday was Pentecost. Even if I had, with my anti-ritual Evangelical background, I wouldn’t have known what to expect. Looking in at the narthex to investigate the clouds of smoke, I saw an altar procession in crimson vestments, bookended by two thuribles swung in overhead arcs, which sent out clouds of frankincense so thick that the altar almost disappeared from view.
Most of the congregation—many of them gay men in their 60s and 70s, survivors of the AIDS epidemic—were also dressed in red, the traditional liturgical color for the Feast of Pentecost, which commemorates the arrival of the Holy Spirit to Jesus’s disciples in the form of tongues of flame. The organ was thunderous, and from a choir lofted in the whitewashed vault, Palestrina spooled down.
Drawn in as I was by the smoke, my first vision of the gardens of St. Luke in the Fields was from the last angle I ever intended: inside the church, looking out. Windows were open along both aisles, and uniquely for Manhattan, the only things visible on either side were trees and sky. All the dogwoods in the garden, all in bloom, rose and fell in the wind from the river. The organ stopped; birdsong poured into the still-vibrating air. Then the organ rumbled back to life, a gentle hand reached from a pew and welcomed me in, and I was singing, too, a hymn of which I still knew every word. It was like emerging from years of isolation into an embrace that fit me perfectly and left no part of me untouched. It was terrifying beyond description.
Before the final hymn, I fled the sanctuary of the church for the sanctuary of the garden. In the far southeast corner, on a bench deep in the shade of a lilac, I wept well past the end of the service. I felt hoodwinked: I’d come to see the garden, been lured into the church by a literal smokescreen, and now, standing out among the buzzing, sunlit roses, I knew that no view of this garden could ever match the view from the heart of the garden’s heart, standing in a pew, hearing birdsong pour in and singing back. It felt impossible to discern whether I’d fallen into a refuge or snare.
The land on which St. Luke in the Fields stands has long been intended as a place of safety. When yellow fever ravaged the parish of Trinity Wall Street on the southern tip of Manhattan in the early 19th century, residents who could afford to flee came northward and established the rural village of Greenwich. The village church, founded in 1820, was their metaphorical field hospital, tending those fleeing fever epidemics and named for St. Luke, the Healer.
By the 1840s, the church became a stronghold for Tractarian and Anglo-Catholic sympathizers who longed for a rapprochement between the ritual liturgy and embodied, sacramental patterns of Roman Catholicism and the individual experience and personal devotion of Protestant Christianity. There was a renewed enthusiasm for the history of Catholicism in England, and an enthusiastic pilgrim returned to New York from Glastonbury Abbey with a slip cut from the legendary Holy Thorn which took root and flourished in St. Luke’s garden. This ancient tree grows on the grounds of Glastonbury Abbey in Somerset, England, where, legendarily, it sprung from the place where St. Joseph of Aramathea plunged his staff into the earth after bringing the Gospel to England. In a satisfying fusion of Celtic Christian (and pre-Christian) nature traditions and Catholicism, this particular variety of hawthorn—Crataegus monogyna ‘Biflora’—flowers twice every year, the froth of blossoms usually coinciding with the two most important feasts of the Christian year: Christmas and Easter.
A century later, Greenwich Village was a part of New York City, and with the exception of the walled garden, St. Luke’s “Fields” became urban streets of a neighborhood synonymous with artistic and outsider culture. Then came the 1980s: HIV decimated the community of gay men who had come to the Village seeking safety and belonging. St. Luke’s was one of the few churches in New York willing to perform Christian funerals for those who died of AIDS, let alone allow a man’s lover pride of place at the front of the church. By 1990, St. Luke’s rector, Mother Molly McGreavey, had earned the grim epithet “Funeral Queen of Greenwich Village.” That same year, a storm blew up the Hudson River and through the church garden, ripping the 1848 Glastonbury Thorn up by its roots.
In 1990, British filmmaker and artist Derek Jarman was dying in the same global pandemic that fueled the endless funeral processions through St. Luke’s garden gate. Jarman was an out gay man in Margaret Thatcher’s England and one of the first people to publicly disclose his HIV-positive status. He was a filmmaker whose existing difficulties getting funding and casting for his films as an openly gay man multiplied ten-fold in the face of his openness about HIV. On February 25, 1989, he wrote in the diary that would become his memoir Modern Naturehis resolution “to celebrate our corner of paradise, the part of the garden the Lord forgot to mention.” He sought paradise in his garden on the Dungeness shingle and in the community of gay men he’d come of age with and was now dying alongside.
Haunted and bludgeoned as so many queer people have been by our invisibility in the creation template of Adam and Eve (“not Adam and Steve!,” that old chestnut), Jarman still knew he belonged there—in the garden and in the story—and so became like God in Eden (just as the Serpent had promised), walking in the garden in the cool of the day, looking not for Adam, or even for God, but for belonging and joy.
Nighttime cruising on Hampstead Heath emerges, in Modern Nature, alongside Jarman’s own garden on the harsh beach at Dungeoness, as Paradise Regained, where gay men and other queer people move through a garden that night and community makes their own. Reading the sublime pastoralism of Jarman’s accounts of evening cruising on Hampstead Heath (“I have visited the Heath several times recently, it is always exciting and joyous. The deep silence, the cool night air, the pools of moonlight and stars, the great oaks and beeches—all old friends.”), I imagine other long-dead men finding each other—and themselves—in the gardens of St. Luke’s, in the cool of the day.
The City and the Garden: The Christian narrative both Jarman and I grappled with is deeply linear and teleological, beginning with Genesis’s Garden and ending with Revelations’s City. Derek Jarman and I both chose the garden, the beginning, despite the City being the classically “gay” landscape, the denouement. Jarman himself never re-entered traditional Christianity, and his work is thick with just denunciations of Christianity and Christians as exploitative and abusive.
Nevertheless, the ground of Christianity is everywhere in Jarman’s films, his writing, his artwork. In the last few years of his life, he was “canonized” by the queer activist “order,” The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. Reading the way Jarman thinks about “paradise”, watching the footage of “St. Derek” joyfully dancing with the Sisters in one of his last Pride Parades, and seeing the many crucifixes preserved in his home on Dungeoness Beach, I feel a familiar Queer Return, a reconsecration of the garden, the natural, the religious, the past: all the things which traditionally spell only danger and refusal for queer lives and loves, lives and loves which have so frequently been confined to a narrative of the city, the artificial/artistic, the secular, the future.
I learned that church gardens are a common sanctuary for queer people who find the church’s own sanctuary too freighted with old pain. One friend, raised Roman Catholic, tells the story of going to mass for the first time in a decade with his then-seminarian boyfriend (now his husband and a Cathedral Dean). In line for communion, the weight of years of exile from the eucharistic table mounted until he could not bear the accumulated pain and beauty of return: he turned on his heel and fled up the aisle (“I actually ran,” he says) out to the garden, gasping for breath.
Another friend, a former nun and lesbian activist who left her religious order after years of abuse, told of being frightened to enter St. Luke’s doors for the first summer after she found it, but coming every Sunday to lie in the grass outside to hear our rector, Mother Stacy, chant the Great Thanksgiving. “I never thought I would hear a woman’s voice sing the mass in my lifetime,” she would say, tears filling her eyes, years after the fact. “I couldn’t bear to go in and I couldn’t bear to leave, so I sat in the garden.”
Despite the apparent dichotomy of beginning and end, Genesis and Revelations, Garden and City, at the center of both the garden (Genesis 2:9) and the city, or so the Bible says, a tree grows. “The tree of life, bearing 12 kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit every month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations” (Revelations 22:2).
The Holy Saturday I was confirmed was an early one, and cold, with a sharp breeze blowing off the Hudson. After photos in St. Luke’s garden and before the beginning of the Easter Vigil service, my fellow confirmands, our sponsors, and the visiting Bishop took refuge from the chill indoors, but I stood in the garden to listen to a robin singing in the branches of the Holy Thorn. A cutting from the tree that came down in the storm of 1990 successfully took root, and on the Easter I was confirmed 23 years later, was in full blossom.
In 1990, Derek Jarman lay in the hospital, raging with fever as HIV took its course. His entries in Modern Nature grow shorter and more esoteric, oracular. “The garden,” he declared, “is the center of surprise.” On the evening of my confirmation, standing under the blooming thorn tree that was reborn from the storm, reborn from a Victorian traveler’s suitcase, reborn from Joseph of Aramathea’s staff, I knew exactly what he meant.
Elisabeth Plumlee-Watson graduated from Vassar College with a degree in religion and has worked in the book business for her entire career, including almost ten years in publishing. She now works full-time as a buyer and bookseller at Loganberry Books in her hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. Elisabeth lives with her wife in Cleveland Heights and her writing can most frequently be found on Instagram at @eplumleewatson.
Header photo of gardens at the Church of St. Luke in the Fields courtesy the Church of St. Luke in the Fields.